Why did Jesus ask the disciples, 'Who do you say that I am?'
As is the case most times when Jesus asks a question, He asked the disciples "Who do you say that I am?" because He wanted to reveal the truth to them through the answer. Jesus asks this question in Luke 9:20 (see also Matthew 16:13; Mark 8:27). At the beginning of Luke 9, Jesus gives the disciples power to cast out demons and heal the sick; He sends them out to preach the gospel. Upon their return, Jesus preaches to the crowd and performs the multiplication miracles of the loaves and fishes for the 5,000 men, plus the women and children (Luke 9:1–17). Naturally, these events caused a bit of a buzz of discussion surrounding the question of who Jesus really was. So, He brought it up to His disciples.
In Luke 9:18–20, we see Jesus' conversation with His disciples: "Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, 'Who do the crowds say that I am?' And they answered, 'John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.' Then he said to them, 'But who do you say that I am?' And Peter answered, 'The Christ of God.'" The same story is told in Matthew 16 and Mark 8. In Matthew 16:16, Peter's response is detailed further as, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." In this, He not only affirms Jesus as Lord but also as the Son of God incarnate.
Jesus asked the disciples "Who do you say that I am?" in order to give them an opportunity to assess the true level of their faith. Upon hearing such a bold response from Peter, Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). God had opened Peter's eyes to see who Jesus truly was, and when presented with this question, Peter was able to confidently state his belief.
It was after asking His disciples "Who do you say that I am?" that Jesus started to speak to them about His upcoming death and resurrection—things that had been prophesied about the Messiah. "From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised" (Matthew 16:21). Even though the disciples presumably knew what had been prophesied of the Messiah, and though they had professed great faith in Jesus, when Jesus began to explain to them all that must happen they still had trouble understanding. Peter, who had just been so full of faith, became full of doubt and anger at the prospect of Jesus having to suffer (Matthew 16:22–23). The rest of the disciples were equally as confused as Peter, but they did not say anything back to Jesus (Mark 9:32).
Even with revelation from God about His character, the example of Peter and the disciples' quick turnaround shows how easy it is for us to view the things of the Spirit through natural eyes. Hebrews 11:6 reminds us: "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." This is the process toward spiritual maturity; it requires faith, patience, and practice. Through prayer and the Word, we are able to grow in our faith and knowledge of the Lord (2 Timothy 3:16–17). As we continue to press ahead in our belief in Jesus Christ, like the disciples, we will become progressively more able to understand and believe the revelations given by the Holy Spirit.
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